How should golf fans feel about watching LIV Golf events? An ethicist weighs in

The LIV broadcast feed from the debut event in London.

LIV Golf

“Stick to sports!”

So goes the mantra of irritated fans who say they’d rather have their entertainment stripped of all the rest.

The desire is understandable. And unrealistic. Sports have never played out in isolation. Not at the ancient-day Olympics. Not in the modern-day NFL.

Golf, of course, is no exception, a point made plain by the heated conversations around LIV Golf. If you’ve followed the news about the Saudi-funded rival circuit, you’re familiar with the basics of the back and forth. Depending on who’s talking, LIV Golf is either an unseemly example of “sportswashing” meant to cleanse the reputation of an oppressive regime, or a healthy dose of competition for a PGA Tour that has no rightful claim to the moral high ground. Positions have hardened along those lines, with some taking stands in a gray area in between.

For the most part, the arguments have focused on the words and conduct of the game’s big names — its elite players and institutions — with only passing mention of the golf-watching public, except in the context of whether the product will be better or worse.

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That’s a valid question, but it avoids a more nuanced matter that is also fair game for discussion: sports-fan ethics. Are there guidelines? If so, what are they?

Don Heider is a professor of social ethics at the University of Santa Clara, in California, and the chief executive of the school’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. On the heels of LIV Golf’s debut event this week, in London, we asked Heider to unpack questions of sports-fan “rights” and “wrongs.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

GOLF.com: Some observers believe that sports are sports, and that they should not be mixed with politics. As a sports fan, is that an ethically defensible position?

Heider: I would say that as citizens, we all have an ethical obligation to our community and to the world. Nothing is “only.” Sports is connected to power and politics, and we should be aware of these connections and their consequences.

So, if you are a golf fan who is uneasy with LIV Golf’s funding, should you not watch?

Heider: It depends on how seriously you take your ethical obligations. I do think that fans can vote with their eyeballs by not going to tournaments and not watching them. It’s a way to have a voice, of saying, “I can’t in good conscience support an event or a league that is sponsored by a regime that conducts itself in ways that are a violation of what I believe.”

As many have pointed out, the PGA Tour has hosted events in China and other countries with far from spotless human-rights records. From a fan’s perspective, is there a meaningful ethical difference? A gray area?

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Heider: You can find shades of gray. But I see it more as a slippery slope. I think they’re all problematic. The fact that we have the Olympics in China or Russia, for instance. Show me the evidence that this is helping human beings in any way?

One of the arguments is that sports are a way of helping open countries that might be closed off or oppressive, that sports can create more opportunities for the people there. Is that not a benefit to humankind?

Heider: I have trouble with that. The reason organizations like the NBA or the PGA Tour are so sensitive about China is not because they’re working to help the people of China. It’s because they see dollar signs. The Saudi league is about making money and giving prestige to the Saudi regime. And the PGA Tour is looking to generate more revenue and build an audience in China. To me, the motivations are very similar.

Given the slippery slope you mention, how should a fan decide how to feel about things?

Heider: In our field, we apply six lenses when making ethical decisions. One of them is the utilitarian lens. You ask yourself: Am I doing harm? If your participation by watching is causing harm, then it’s not a good course of action. The goal is to maximize good and minimize harm.

Someone might counter by saying, “Whether I watch or not isn’t going to make a difference one way or the other.”

Heider: OK, then decide what you’re going to do and then post on social media. You don’t have to have found a national organization to take a moral stand on something. Who knows if your position is going to catch on? What’s more, who takes a moral action by calculating what the potential impact might be? It runs against the idea of trying to make yourself the best person you can possibly be. That’s another lens we use in ethics. The virtue lens. You’re trying to become a better person by adhering to virtues like honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, tolerance. You ask yourself: am I, by taking this action, becoming the best version of myself?

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The word virtue calls to mind another phrase used a lot these days: virtue signaling. The idea that some expressions of opposition to this or that are just performative. If you’re taking a stand that you believe to be virtuous, can that be rightly dismissed as just signaling?

Heider: Performative would be speaking out against the Saudi-backed league, but then taking part in their tournaments. Virtue signaling means you talk a good game, but your actions show you as different. Refusing to take part is not necessarily virtue signaling. It could be actually trying to act virtuously.

What if I were to argue that I enjoy watching golf. It relaxes me. It’s a welcome escape. I come away feeling more patient and kind and ready to meet the day. In that way, it makes me a better, more virtuous person. Does that hold water?

Heider: It seems like with this argument you might be conflating personal fulfillment with virtue. We spend most of our time trying to make ourselves feel better, more relaxed, happier, etc. That’s different than making a decision that might actually help us become more virtuous. What you’re talking about might be considered self-indulgence.

Let’s get back to those ethical lenses. What are some of the others?

Heider: Another is the rights lens. Does what I’m doing respect the moral rights of the people affected. Am I, by watching this tournament, supporting human rights? Or am I supporting a regime that is oppressing people or hurting people? I don’t have poll numbers to back this up, but my sense is that if you asked most Americans, Should I be drinking Russian vodka or supporting Putin, most people would say “no.” The reason I think there’s more ambiguity around Saudi Arabia is that our own government, including the past administration and the current one, has also been ambiguous toward that country. There has not been a clear denouncement of what they are doing. Of course, that has everything to do with politics and oil and other considerations. But as a citizen, because the U.S has not clearly condemned Saudi Arabia, it leaves more moral ambiguity.

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Let’s move beyond the leagues and talk about the fan relationship with players. Let’s say you love Phil Mickelson, but you don’t like his decision to be part of LIV. Is it still okay to root for him? Can you say to yourself, I don’t approve of his actions, but I still want him to do well?

Heider: It’s a tough position to take if you feel he is knowingly doing something that is reprehensible. It’s one thing to have an athlete who says one dumb thing, breaks a club or curses at a caddie and then apologizes. This is different. [Mickelson] has been very clear about the Saudi regime. He clearly understands where they stand on human rights, and he’s still going to play anyway.

Does the same thinking apply for a player taking part in a Tour event in China?

Heider: I think it’s very similar. The only other question is — my understanding is that these guys can decide to sit out a certain number of tournaments. If they were somehow compelled to play in an event or they’d lose their card, that’s different. But if they can pick and choose, and they’ve chosen to play there…

It’s not always easy being a fan, is it?

Heider: It’s an area fraught with questions. It can be hard as a fan to reconcile that a player you’ve grown up with or a team or a league is engaged in behavior that conflicts with your values. But I think part of being a better fan is not to just shut your eyes to it. Educate yourself. Make yourself aware of what the issues are, even if it’s unpleasant. As citizens and decent human beings, we should try to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

InsideGOLF member exclusive: Join Sean Zak and Dylan Dethier at 11 a.m. Monday for a live conversation about what the first LIV Golf event was like on site, plus what the new league means for the game. Not a member? Join here for only $20/year.

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A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.